The Bible Fails as “God’s Truth”—and That’s a Big Relief

The few good bits are swamped by the many bad bits

When the movie, The Ten Commandments, was released in 1956 I was a 14-year-old devout Christian living in a small town in northern Indiana. I saw the film in our town’s only cinema, and was especially awestruck by the slender fiery finger of God descending from the sky to blast onto the stone tablets those famous ten commandments. Yes, that must have been exactly how it happened. I suspect that movie played a role in securing a firm place for this famous law code in American consciousness.



Fast forward a couple of decades. I had learned: (1) that these laws predated Moses, i.e., they are found in older codes of law in other cultures; (2) they need not have come from a god: people had discovered that common life together works better if people don’t murder, steal, commit adultery, and covet; (3) there are too many missing commandments, e.g., thou shalt not enslave people, thou shalt not discriminate against women, thou shalt not go to war—what a difference those could have made in human history; (4) the first three of these big ten have more to do with the god’s ego than anything else. What kind of god is that? 


That episode on Mt. Sinai—super hyped by Cecile B. DeMille—is part of a much bigger epic: the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. It has been the natural impulse of devout Christians to prove that the Bible got this story right. But is it really smart to try to do this? It seems to me they bring down too many problems on their faith when they argue that this Bible epic is historical. Consider this supposed “prediction”—a fragment of alarming theology, one of the bad bits— Genesis 15:12-14:


“As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.Then the LORD said to Abram, ‘Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years, but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.’” 


When this was written, many centuries after Abram was thought to have lived, the author was setting the stage for the high drama that would unfold in the history of his people. But his theology was anchored to an ancient concept of god that Christian theologians would, in fact, disown. For later theologians, who would brag that their god is super powerful, all knowing, and supremely competent, it cannot possibly make sense that this god would just watch as his chosen people endured slavery for four hundred years. 


The author of Genesis 15:12-14 savored the idea of this god’s big rescue of the Israelites from Egypt. Indeed, what an epic, and even today theologians can’t let go of it, and are determined to prove that it happened as depicted in the book of Exodus. 


But they hit a brick wall, namely the lack of hard evidence. Dr. Rebecca Bradley, who holds a PhD in Archaeology from Cambridge University, wrote an essay, “The Credibility of the Exodus,” for John Loftus’ 2016 anthology, Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion. She points out that, for the devout, the truth of the Bible is crucial, including the rescue from Egypt, told in such detail: “…it is necessary for all this to have happened just as the Bible claims—because if it did not, then our religions, our laws, even Western civilization itself, are all founded on a lie.” (p. 253)


Alas, however, there’s that brick wall: “To put it bluntly, there is no archaeological evidence for the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan as described in the Bible, and there is significant archaeological evidence ruling it out.” (p. 255) But what do archaeologists know? They are oblivious to god’s truth, right? Bradley quotes one apologist: “All truth is God’s truth, yet the only truth which can be known absolutely is that truth which God chooses to reveal in his Word. Thus the biblical evidence must be the primary evidence.” (pp. 260-261) 


That is absolutely wrong because writing historically accurate accounts requires descriptions of sources and documentation. To claim that a god created the narratives is a flagrant example of magical thinking. Bradley writes about the 


“…serious problems in finding traces of a literal Exodus from the Nile Valley, as described in the Old Testament. For one thing, in a literate culture with a mania for recording, one would expect at least some mention of these dramatic events to show up in Egyptian annals. The argument commonly used, that the pharaohs would suppress the memory of such a humiliation, does not hold water—the disappearance of a whole army and such a huge source of labor would surely leave ripples in the financial records, if nowhere else.” (pp. 266-267)


The suggestion of apologists that pharaohs would suppress humiliating memories is guesswork, speculation—not surprising coming from apologists who indulge in exactly that to protect their god’s reputation: “our god works in mysterious ways.” That is guesswork and speculation when the incoherency of theology becomes unmanageable.


Bradley goes into detail about the problems of fitting the Exodus into known Egyptian chronologies. Moreover, the story of hundreds of thousands of Israelites and their livestock wandering for forty years in the Sinai wilderness is simply a tall tale. The authors of Exodus were just smart enough to know this was an issue, so came up with a few miracles from god: Moses got water by striking rocks, manna was sent from heaven—as well as quails from the sky. 


Why is it a tall tale? Bradley notes that


“The Sinai is not a welcoming place for a mass migration: stretches of desert, broken backside-of-the-moon rockscapes, winding escarpments, fractal wadis that are dry much of the year…no archaeological remains suggesting a mass migration of Asiatics across Sinai have ever been recorded, though several archaeological explorations have been carried out…there would be nothing subtle about a great mass of people and animals shuffling across the landscape…[that] should have left a large, clear footprint, including a good scatter of artifacts.”  (pp. 268-269)


This startling lack of evidence points to the true motivation of the ancient authors, as Bradley notes:


“The conclusion strongly suggested by archeology—that the Exodus narrative is an origin myth rather than veridical history—is further supported by examining the bare bones of the story itself. A good case can be made that the composers relied heavily on reworking folk memes that were floating about the ancient Near East at the time, which can also be glimpsed in other legendary-historical traditions.” (p. 270)  


The bare bones of the story are an embarrassment to thoughtful readers, and demonstrate exactly why we can be relieved that the Bible isn’t “god’s truth.” The storyteller certainly knew how to heighten the drama, but thereby slipped into bad theology. When Yahweh commissions Moses to speak to the Pharaoh, this is Yahweh’s script created by the author (Exodus 7:2-3): 


“You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.


What was the purpose of hardening Pharaoh’s heart? It seems that Yahweh wanted to put on a show, i.e., multiply signs and wonders. But this begs an even larger question: is it really in the Christian god’s power to harden or soften human hearts? If so, countless times in human history this god has brought on so much human suffering for failing to soften the hearts of ruthless leaders. 


When Moses and Aaron had an audience with Pharaoh, Yahweh’s power was to be displayed by changing Aaron’s rod into a snake (Exodus 7:10-12): 


“Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes, but Aaron’s staff swallowed up theirs.


Do Christian apologists really want to defend this magic contest as “god’s truth”? 


Then we move on to the major plagues that Yahweh afflicted upon Egypt, the first one being floods of blood (Exodus 7:19):


“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to Aaron: Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water—so that they may become blood, and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’”


But no matter, the magic show continued (Exodus 7:22): “But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened…” Slight plot flaw here: where did Pharaoh’s magicians find water that hadn’t already been turned into blood? 


The Plagues continue: the land is overrun with frogs, gnats, flies, diseased livestock, boils, thunder and hail, locusts, darkness. Two of these illustrate how vicious, ruthless this god of the Israelites could be.


“…all of the Egyptians’ livestock died, but none of the Israelites’ livestock died. Pharaoh inquired and found that not even one of the Israelites’ livestock had died.” (Exodus 9:6-7)


“Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it in the air in the sight of Pharaoh. It shall become dust all over the land of Egypt and shall cause festering boils on humans and animals throughout the whole land of Egypt.’”  (Exodus 9:8-9)


Pharaoh’s magicians couldn’t respond because they were covered with boils themselves! 


Now we encounter really bad theology. Think carefully, Christian apologists: should the final plague be considered part of their “god’s truth”? 


The final plague is targeted murder (Exodus 12:29-30):


“At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians, and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.” 


So finally we come to the dramatic climax of this drama with Pharaoh. He relented and the Israelites began their exodus, after 430 years (Exodus 12:40) in Egypt. Then there was the parting of the sea to facilitate their escape: more magic, Moses did it by raising his magic wand—no, wait, his staff. Cecil B. DeMille did a good job with this too. The Israelites made their escape, and all of the Egyptian army in pursuit was drowned when the waters fell back in place. This entire epic of national origin was written centuries later by authors who knew they belonged to the chosen people—more bad theology—so they delighted in reporting that all of the Egyptian army had died.  


Can thoughtful readers today read all the cruelties in Exodus 7-14, and embrace this text as “god’s truth”? In Exodus 15:3, in the Song of Moses, Yahweh is described as a Man of War. How can this not be bad theology, since war has proved to be humankind’s most grievous fault? 


It’s folly to claim this story as part of “god’s truth.” It contributes to one of the primary faults of Christian theology, i.e., belief in a brutal, totalitarian god. Rebecca Bradley sums it up pretty well at the end of her essay. Moses, she says, was 


“…a charismatic leader who persuades a pack of marginalized people to follow him into the wilderness on the promise of a better life, and then subjects them to increasingly despotic behavior and draconian rules, the Jim Jones of the Wilderness of Sin. The narrative of the Exodus and the sojourn in the wilderness is one of blood and terror, hideous punishments, and ruthless intolerance of dissent, a fitting prelude to the genocidal horrors of the Conquest.”  (p. 273)





David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


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